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Hokkaido’s western Shiribeshi region is struggling to boost lumber production despite a growing demand for domestic timber and soaring prices around the world — dubbed the “wood shock.”

A shortage of loggers and difficulty tracking down landowners to get consent for forest harvesting are some of the reasons behind the situation, prompting frustration among forestry businesses hoping to cash in on the opportunity.

Lumber prices have been surging globally, triggered by growing demand for housing in the United States and other countries. Speculative funds have also flowed into the market, leading to a global increase in raw material prices.

After hitting a record high in May, market prices have begun to decline. But prices are still nearly double the level of the same period last year, which is likely to prompt a substantial price hike for foreign lumber in Japan in the future.

A forestry cooperative in the town of Kyogoku, Hokkaido, has been getting inquiries from major companies such as Takenaka Corp., Sumitomo Forestry Co. and Mitsui Fudosan Co. about orders for building materials since April.

“It is good that lumber produced in Hokkaido is attracting attention and orders are increasing,” said Michihiro Arisue, head of the association. But the reality is that his association cannot increase production.

“Lumber didn’t sell well last year because of the pandemic, but it’s selling well this year. But now it’s difficult to collect wood,” said Miyuki Hayashi, a cooperative executive.

The cooperative, which has a sawmill, usually processes 17,000 cubic meters of logs, but the amount is expected to be only about 15,000 cubic meters this year.

In order to collect as many logs as possible, the purchase price was increased 10% to 15% in April. Even so, the amount of logs piled up in the yard is about half of what it was in previous years because supply cannot keep up with the strong demand.

Why is it so difficult to ramp up production?

Chitose Ringyo Co., a major lumber producer in Hokkaido, cites a lack of manpower as the primary reason.

“It takes time to acquire skills to use heavy machinery for logging. It’s not something that can be quickly filled by part-time workers,” said Yukihiro Tochigi, president of the company.

Even though the process is mechanized to some extent, it is still a dangerous job to take on, making it hard for lumber companies to retain workers.

In addition, not all workers can be used for log production, since there is a lot of deforestation work to develop resorts.

“Even if we try our best, we can only increase our log production by 10% to 20%. It will be difficult to boost production substantially,” said Shigenori Ishimi, a senior official at another forestry cooperative in the town of Rangoshi.

A lack of suitable forests also makes it difficult to increase production. There are only a limited number of forests with coniferous trees used for construction materials that are also in season for harvesting.

“Even if there are large areas of forests, it is often difficult to obtain approval for logging because it is difficult to track down landowners who don’t live in the area,” Ishimi said.

With little prospect of bolstering production, manufacturers of building materials and plywood in Hokkaido are raising their purchase prices in order to collect more logs.

Some of the businesses expressed the hope that this will be a wake-up call to shift dependence on foreign lumber to domestic timber, thereby improving self-sufficiency.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published July 10.

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